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A Walk on the Banks, pt. 2

A beginner’s guide to the history of Rutgers and its football program.

This entry is largely concerned with the period from 1979 to 1996. With Syracuse playing Penn State this weekend (giving the press another opportunity to open old wounds), I figured this would be a timely opportunity to tackle some ancient history. For reference, please read part one first if you haven't already.

It's hard to get any two people to agree on the correct recollection of events leading up to the formation of the Big East conference in 1979. First, here's long-time Syracuse AD Jake Crouthamel.

In the Spring of 1978, only a few months after my arrival in Syracuse, Dave Gavitt, Jack Kaiser and Frank Rienzo, Athletics Directors at Providence, St. Johns and Georgetown respectively, gathered to discuss newly imposed NCAA men's basketball in-season scheduling requirements. These requirements forced independent institutions like the four of us to align and schedule schools with whom we had no interest or tradition. Self determination was far better than being told who your partners would be, and so the four of us met for countless hours in countless sessions to determine the make-up of our new conference to be. We considered the quality of men's basketball programs in the northeast, regional representation, significant media markets, etc. Boston College was invited over Holy Cross, UMass and Boston University. Connecticut was then added. Rutgers was extended an invitation but declined because it was aligned in the Atlantic 8 (now the Atlantic 10) along with Penn State. Rutgers didn't feel comfortable disassociating itself with Penn State. Seton Hall took Rutgers spot. Villanova was also in the Atlantic 8, but it joined up a year later over Temple and St. Josephs. Thus, in the first year of operation, 1979-80, we had seven active members which increased to eight in 1980-81.

After only two years of existence as a conference formed specifically for men's basketball, football became an issue. Joe Paterno, head football coach and then Director of Athletics at Penn State, had been trying to put together an all-sports conference of the eastern Division IA independent schools. They included Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, West Virginia and Temple. While our football fortunes would be well served through such an alignment, it would have been a step backward for men's basketball. To enter into such an alignment Syracuse and Boston College would have had to leave the BIG EAST. With the reluctance of B.C. and Syracuse to do so, Penn State then asked for membership in the BIG EAST. This was a turning point in the Conferences history. If Penn State was accepted, our football would be protected. If Penn State was rejected, B.C. and Syracuse might have no other option but to leave the BIG EAST, and join together with the other Eastern independents. To expand membership in The BIG EAST Conference six affirmative votes were necessary. The vote was 5-3. Instead of taking Penn State, we invited Pittsburgh as the ninth member. At that time Pittsburgh and Penn State were bitter rivals, and Pittsburgh was less than enamored with aligning itself with Penn State. Pitt's membership in the BIG EAST, along with B.C. and Syracuse, checkmated Penn State's eastern all-sports conference, and gave the Conference one more Division IA school. This football issue nearly caused the premature demise of the BIG EAST. Clearly, three schools in the BIG EAST had no concept of the importance of football, but the others realized that this decision not to invite Penn State would come back to haunt us. In fact, football would dictate every future consideration of membership expansion of our "basketball" conference.

Joe Paterno has a slightly different recollection.

Paterno also admitted his greatest off-the-field disappointment was his inability to convince Syracuse - and the rest of the major east coast independents like Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Boston College, UConn and Rutgers - to form an all-sports conference in the 1980s.

"I wanted us to have an eastern conference," Paterno said. "But Syracuse, and a couple others, were all wrapped up in Big East basketball. I thought I had almost pulled it off, and then Pitt backed out.

"If Pitt would have (agreed) we would have had seven schools plus Maryland. We would have had an eight-team league that would have been good in basketball, good in women's sports and the whole bit.

"Contrary to what anybody tells you in the Big East, they tried to get us to go into it just for basketball," added Paterno, who was the PSU athletic director at the time. "And I said, no, we want an all-sports conference. And I couldn't sway them."

Paterno still cites this slight as a reason why he will not schedule a home and home with Pitt (although they did play up until the late 90s). It does not explain why Penn State will not give Rutgers a home-and-home series at the moment, as Rutgers took Paterno's side (along with Temple and West Virginia) in the Great Eastern Sports Schism.

The other main player in these maneuverings, at least from a football perspective, was Pitt (the comments below are from their former AAD Dean Billick).

Pitt ultimately decided to join the Big East because it could remain independent in football and pocket the large sums of money it was making in that sport. If it had joined the Eastern Conference, Pitt would have had to split that money through revenue sharing. With Pitt out of the mix, the all-sports conference never materialized, much to the chagrin of Paterno.

"I'm not interested in being critical of anyone or another school, but there were some behind-the-scenes actions that we thought were selfish and troubling," said Billick, who is an athletics chief of staff at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. "What some schools were seeing in conference fees and revenue sharing were not in Pitt's best interests."

I've read some Pitt fans actually blame Paterno and Penn State as the ones working against revenue sharing, but the issue is besides the point. Rutgers allied itself with Joe Paterno and Penn State, and its athletic programs suffered enormously as a result. Believe it or not, in the mid-1970s, Rutgers basketball was one of the top programs in the East under coach Tom Young, Phil "The Thrill" Sellers, James Bailey, and Eddie Jordan. While RU-replacement Seton Hall was left to reap the benefits of Big East membership, Rutgers basketball began a steady decline stuck in the Atlantic-10 conference. Tom Young was to depart in 1985, and was replaced by the dangerously inept Craig Littlepage. His replacement Bob Wenzel is still recalled fondly, but Rutgers basketball still has not recovered despite finally joining the Big East for all sports in the mid-90s.

Nor did the loyalty to Paterno pay dividends in football. PSU assistant Dick Anderson was hired to replace Frank Burns in 1984, and presumably use his experience in Happy Valley to upgrade the football program's status. 1984 also saw Rutgers infamously back out of a game with Miami so that the Hurricanes could instead play Doug Flutie's Boston College squad. Anderson had his share of ups and downs during his tenure, and he was ultimately sacked following a disappointing 1989 season. Rutgers was finally starting to invest in facilities, but the lack of a modern stadium remained a critical bottleneck. Candidates to replace Anderson at the time reportedly included Ted Cottrell, George DeLeone, Glen Mason, Andy Talley, Mark Duffner, and Fred Hill Sr.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Doug Graber replaced Anderson, and ended up having a similar tenure. Fresh off joining the brand new Big East Football Conference, Rutgers had a decent campaign in 1992. They had a memorable comeback vs. Virginia Tech on Halloween, but lost a heartbreaker to Cincinnati late in the season which arguably cost them a shot at a bowl bid. Bowl bids used to be much rarer, and Rutgers would not return to a bowl game until 2005. 1992 also saw BC quarterback Glenn Foley's "The only bowl Rutgers is going to is the one I just got off of." quote. Foley was last seen a decade ago getting cut from the Jets in favor of Ray Lucas.

Still, the future looked bright early in the Graber tenure. The new Rutgers Stadium was finally built in 1992 (albeit with significant corners cut), and Graber was landing talented players like Terrell Willis and Marco Battaglia. A betting man would have probably chosen the future of 7-win Rutgers over 2-win Virginia Tech at that point.

From 1987-1992, Rutgers compiled a record of 29-35-2. While that's nothing to brag about, that winning percentage was higher than Tech's, which was 24-40-2 during the same period. For those of you who may have joined the Hokie bandwagon recently, you might not know that in 1992, Rutgers defeated Tech 50-49 on a last-second touchdown pass. That game, which many thought would be a big boost for the Knights' program, actually became a turning point for the Hokies.

After that game, Coach Frank Beamer made some staff changes, the Hokies started recruiting better players, and the rest is history.

So, what happened? The program still had many structural issues. Chief among them, academics. It's no surprise that Greg Schiano's first two priorities upon being hired were to build the Hale Center (athletics facility), and significantly upgrade the program's academic support staff.

Though Graber mended broken ties between Rutgers and New Jersey high schools, Lawrence emphasized the need to recruit "with more depth." He also discussed the possibility of adding a "general studies" curriculum to help the eligibility of players of lesser academic standing. Graber has complained that some players who would have been eligible at other schools were ineligible at Rutgers because of stringent academic requirements.

Terrell Willis, who set a freshman record for yardage and was arguably the gold standard for backs at RU until Ray Rice arrived, left early under difficult circumstances. 1995 also saw the infamous confrontation at Giants Stadium between Graber and Paterno.

Joe Paterno went into a damage-control mode today, three days after his nationally televised, expletive-laced spat with Rutgers Coach Doug Graber. Paterno apologized for his foul language and quick temper and tried to explain why the Penn State backup Mike McQueary threw a 42-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of a 59-34 victory over the Scarlet Knights Saturday.

Paterno, 68 years old, explained that McQueary was supposed to throw an 8-yard pass to a third-string tight end, but he couldn't resist throwing to flanker Chris Campell, who was wide open and breaking toward the end zone.

"I should not have to apologize for Mike doing what he has been coached to do," Paterno said.

Paterno did apologize for blowing up at Graber. "I feel very, very bad about the four-letter words," he said. "I would not want my kids to have to listen to a national figure go on television and say what I said."

Rutgers has not played Penn State since, although PSU has offered several lopsided deals in recent years.

Frustrated by the team's inconsistency, university president Francis Lawrence and AD Fred Gruninger were determined to act.

Today, after two winning seasons out of six and a 29-36-1 record over all, Graber was fired with two years left on his contract. An immediate search for his replacement was begun by the university president, Francis L. Lawrence, who said he wanted a coach who could win consistently, "not do it for one year, then fall back."

I do not want to be an also-ran," Lawrence said at a news conference.

Some coaches who have been mentioned as possible successors to Graber include Glenn Mason of Kansas, Skip Holtz of Connecticut, Fisher DeBerry of Air Force, Gary Barnett of Northwestern and George Henshaw, an assistant coach with the Giants.

Eerie similarities between the bolded section and a certain program in western NY's justification for firing Paul Pasqualoni, aren't there? 1995 also saw Francis Lawrence put the university in a very negative light by uttering certain racially-charged comments. At least that year also saw the hiring of the immortal C. Vivian Stringer.

Unsurprisingly, Gruninger's decision to interview Kansas coach (and NJ native) Glen Mason in a local diner did not go over all that well with Mason. He also ignored the fervent pleas of Ted Cottrell and Jick Bicknell. Boy, you wish Gruninger would have at least heeded the advice of Bicknell.

As for the Rutgers job, Bicknell has no doubt that the road to success will be a lot easier for the guy who knows the lay of the land in New Jersey high school coaching circles.

''I know a lot of guys, and Rutgers needs to get a guy who the high school coaches don't perceive as a phony,'' Bicknell said.

''If that happens, they'll eat him alive. You'd better be down-to-earth and level with them or it's not going to work. I think the guy who just left the program did a good job in that way. He was not a phony and the high school coaches liked him.''

Based on a personal recommendation, Lawrence and Gruninger settled on Walsh's assistant/crony/errand boy Terry Shea, the man who set the template for Greg Robinson at Syracuse.

"This cannot be a year of transition for Rutgers because I won't allow it to be," Shea said after a news conference.

Shea likened his acceptance of the Rutgers coaching job to that of Gary Barnett, who took over a Northwestern team that had been a perennial Big Ten doormat and then guided it to a berth in the coming Rose Bowl.

"I see us as having the same potential for success," Shea said.

This story will continue at an indeterminate point in the future. Until then, let's briefly recap. From SI's infamous "Why Can't Rutgers Ever Win?" article, which was ironically published in 2003, the year when Greg Schiano finally saw results:

There were, in fact, some glorious years. In 1976 the Scarlet Knights finished 11-0. Two years later they went 9-3 and made the lone postseason appearance in school history, losing 34-18 to Arizona State in the Garden State Bowl. But soon thereafter—eager to become what then university president Edward J. Bloustein called "bigger time, not big time"—Rutgers began shedding traditional Ivy League opponents like Princeton and Cornell and sprinkling its schedule with a Michigan State here, a Tennessee there.

The program soon fell into decline. "The institution never made a commitment [back then]," says Ron Giaconia, a member of the school's board of governors and chairman of the athletic committee. "You don't go big-time by waving a magic wand and saying this is what you want to be. There was no [top-level football] infrastructure in place until the last few years."

Along with poor decision making and a constantly precarious financial situation, these are by far the overwhelming themes in the history of Rutgers athletics. If you want to be "big-time", you can't make a halfhearted commitment, or you'll get the same mediocre results that Rutgers had for so long. Dick Anderson and Doug Graber did respectable jobs, especially considering the state of the program at that time and the resulting Shea error. It was the Indiana of the East. It was not living up to its supposed potential as a big state university, but it was consistently below average as opposed to the depths it would soon reach. The program began to fade near the end of Graber's tenure (owing to the same organizational problems), and Shea proceded to drive it off a cliff.

That is ultimately why Gov. Whitman forced Bob Mulcahy on Francis Lawrence, over the objections of influential state senator John Lynch (who was pushing the candidacy of George Zoffinger). Naked free throws may or may not have been involved, but that is a story for another time.